by Olivia Martin
LENEXA — Teenagers, like any child or adult, relish having choices. And there has never been a time in which individuals have faced more choices than the present.
Nevertheless, students — even students in the Kansas City community — are having their choices taken away from them. This privation has a name: domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST).
DMST is the forcing of American children into the sex trafficking industry, whether through prostitution, child pornography or other avenues.
Russ Tuttle, president of the Stop Trafficking Project (STP) and BeAlert, an awareness and prevention strategy of STP, addressed Lenexa’s St. James Academy students in an all-school assembly March 1, informing and equipping them against this modern slavery.
Tuttle began by sharing the facts about how a young person’s brain development leaves her particularly susceptible to the intensity of emotion.
“Neuroscientists tell us that the average human brain is not fully developed until we are in our mid-20s,” said Tuttle.
“On average, it takes 219,000 hours of lived life for your brain to be fully developed, especially the frontal lobe where you make good decisions,” he continued.
And the fact that nearly every young person in the United States utilizes some form of social media makes it the perfect space for emotionally vulnerable students to be preyed upon.
In a group of 28 students between 10 and 17 years who were victims of DMST, said Tuttle, all of them felt the only place they could express themselves was online.
“For all of those students, social media played a role that led them to some level of exploitation,” said Tuttle. “We’ve never been more connected to the entire world than we are right now. And we’ve never felt more alone.”
Fortunately, Tuttle has made it his mission to educate teens and empower adults to fight DMST.
He warned teens to be alert to depression, loneliness and isolation amongst their peers, as predators search for minors displaying those characteristics to exploit.
“The level of depression among [students] has gone up 40 percent in the last six years,” said Tuttle. “We are finding that increased screen usage time can lead to some levels of depression.”
And with the average American teen spending nine hours looking at a screen every day, the statistics are unavoidable.
Tuttle noted, too, that in the past six years, suicide among American teens has increased as well — by 20 percent.
“There are some adults looking to harm students,” said Tuttle, “and the way they can find you is if you decide to be vulnerable and gullible on social media and gaming platforms.”
Tuttle gave the example of a Florida man who was arrested in January after using popular online game Fortnite to solicit child pornography and unlawful sex.
He also stressed that his presentation wasn’t a cry to end social media but a plea to use it wisely.
“We have to do this in moderation,” he said.
St. James guided studies teacher Liz Enna was grateful for the opportunity to learn about the harsh reality of DMST.
“The fact that there are adults out there looking to harm [students] makes me really angry,” she said. “But to be able to be an example of what an adult is supposed to be is something I want to do.”
Lauren Kropf, a junior at St. James, was struck by the fact that exposure to pornography for young people is no longer a question of “if” but “when.”
“I have a 6-year-old brother,” she said, “and when [Tuttle] said the average age for porn viewing [among minors] is 8, that was terrifying to hear.”
Nevertheless, the information Tuttle shared gave Kropf a sense of empowerment.
“We can do something about this,” she said. “Seeing people with depression and loneliness is so hard.
“It makes me want to invite more people [into my life] and be more welcoming.”